Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sorry Is the Kool-Aid Of Human Emotions: A Look At Stephen King's CARRIE [1974]

It's pretty common knowledge by now that Carrie, Stephen King's first-published novel, is not the novel he wrote first -- that honor goes to The Long Walk (or maybe Getting It On). In fact, King wrote five novels and numerous short stories before he even began the now-famous story of Carrie White and her telekinetic revenge on her classmates at the senior prom -- so the guy definitely had some experience at the craft. Still, this was only his sixth novel, and King was still young, so the book definitely doesn't feel as "polished" as, say, Doctor Sleep or Duma Key. It's raw, crass, vulgar, blunt, and full of a young author's angst, but that's not bad. Not bad at all.

 First Edition Hardcover

I had already read Carrie two or three times before my last re-read, but it's such a short (and rich) story that I didn't mind spending a rainy Sunday with it. I meant to read it back in April in celebration of its fortieth birthday, but prom and graduation and vacations and work came up, so I didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks ago. Boy, am I glad I finally did read it. While I always pick up on new things with re-reads of any given King story, stuff really jumped out at me from this one. I had always perceived the sad tale of Carrie White as a tragedy, but not really horrific. Brian de Palma's outstanding movie adaptation? THAT is horror. But the novel? Eh. I never really thought of King as a "horror writer" until his second book, 'Salem's Lot, but I can definitely say my fourth re-read made me realize how horrific this book really is. 

"Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not on the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might have also claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass. What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic."

King neatly sets up in the first page of the book what has come to be known as "the period scene" -- i.e., Carrie White getting her first period in the locker room shower after gym class, not knowing what's happening to her due to her growing up with a hyper-religious mother (more on that later), and the other girls throwing tampons at her and chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!" I'm not a female, nor have I ever been one, but I can imagine this wouldn't be fun for any girl. It's this event that sets the rest of this short novel in motion -- the girls who did this are punished with detention, and Chris Hargensen, one of our main antagonists, is bent on revenge. Sue Snell feels bad about participating in the tampon-throwing and convinces her boyfriend, popular jock Tommy Ross, to invite Carrie to the upcoming senior prom as a way of getting the unpopular girl to become "a part of things." Carrie's mother, Margaret White (a religious nut in every sense of the word -- she locks Carrie in her prayer closet for hours on end with no food or water, physically harms her daughter and herself, tries to kill Carrie in the end because she is convinced her daughter is a witch, etc) loses it when the school calls and tells her about the period incident, thus pushing Carrie farther away and into herself. As for Ms. White, our main character? With her period comes the full maturation of her telekinetic powers, which is something she's always had, but she can now control it; use it as a weapon whenever she pleases. 

 Vintage paperback cover
The plot of this story is one of King's simplest -- socially awkward girl gets her first period later than normal in the most humiliating setting. Other girls tease her and get detention. Most are okay with it, but one girl isn't. She, her idiot greaser boyfriend, and his friends plot revenge and succeed on the night of the senior prom. Socially awkward girl, now in full control of her telekinetic powers, rains destruction down on the school and surrounding town, killing innumerable people -- some purposely, some accidentally. Those who are left eventually leave, and Chamberlain, ME., where this all takes place, eventually becomes a ghost-town haunted by the tragedy of prom night. 

Pretty simple, right? 

What makes this novel sing is the believable characters and the utter emotion that drips from every page. Margaret is scary because I've met folks like her - crazies who can't get out of the Old Testament. Sue's regret feels real, and while her making Tommy ask Carrie to the prom is a little questionable, it works. But our title character works the best, of course -- my heart ached for Carrie White. She's just an outcast who would do anything to fit in, and when she finally thinks she has . . . another prank is pulled on her. While Carrie brings the destruction, she is anything but the villain here. The ones who constantly picked on her and teased her are the villains -- they did more damage than Carrie ever could. 

"This is the girl they keep calling a monster. I want you to keep that firmly in mind. The girl who could be satisfied with a hamburger and a dime root beer after her only school dance so her momma wouldn't be worried . . ."
- Carrie

 Another thing that makes this the success it is is King's use of various sources and perspectives to tell the story, e.g. traditional narrative, Sue Snell's autobiography, various newspaper articles, police reports, scientific studies. This technique helps build the tension and delay the gratification of the climax until the last possible moment, which is something that probably wouldn't work as well in something like The Stand or The Tommyknockers but works splendidly here. Of course, King probably got the idea from Stoker's Dracula, but he makes it his own. 

Carrie author photo

Overall, I really think this story is a gem. Sure, it's sort of obvious that King was relatively new to the game at the time, but that's only because his prose isn't quite as polished as it would become, and a few of the characters are a little wonky. It's a heck of a ride though, and it's one that makes me really burn (pun intended) through the pages to get to the end, even though I've read it multiple times now. It's a classic story that is really applicable to any time period because of its simple premise: bullying and the problems that can arise from it. No, telekinesis is not real (or is it?!? Ooooh!), but school shootings are. Fist-fights are real. Slander on social media is real. Gossip is real. These are problems that plague us here in 2014 more than it ever has before, and are we, as individuals, helping or hurting? Are we the problem or solution? In some ways, Carrie is a little outdated, but it still feels genuine and real, like the best of SK's work. It made me look in the mirror, so to speak, several times during my re-read, and for that I say it's a darn good novel. 

  “People don't get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don't stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it.” 
- Carrie 


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